Husenig (photo courtesy Houshamadyan)

‘You Could Never Not Be Who You Are, Could You?’


By Harry Kezelian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CHICAGO — The background image on my laptop is a panoramic photograph of the village of Husenig with its surrounding mountains and the city of Kharpert on the mountainside above it. The other day I was looking at this image as well as the image of the 1910 graduating class of the Getronagan Varjaran in Kharpert, which I have taped above my desk, and something in my head clicked as it never had before.

I work as a US History teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, but I am originally from Detroit. I have a fellow teacher, about 15 years older than me, Greek-American, raised in Chicago. One day he asked me, “have you ever been to Armenia?” and when I replied in the affirmative, he continued, “do you guys have a house there or some place you go?” I saw where he was going with this line of thought. Many Greek-Americans, particularly those with roots in the Greek Islands, have summer homes back in Greece, on an island – getaways where they can spend time in the summer with family, and reconnect with the inhabitants of not only their native country, but the very native villages from which their families came.

I had to explain to my friend that the situation was not the same with us. Armenian-Americans of Western Armenian descent do not have the luxury the Greeks possess, except for those from Istanbul and (until recently) Kessab. Our ancestral homes have vanished, our villages are populated by Turks and Kurds, and only in the last few years has it even become safe to go and take a look at those places. No one would dare buy a summer home in Kharpert or Sepastia — if the Turkish government would even allow it. And even if one could buy a home there — why would one go? To reconnect with the Kurds and Turks of our native provinces?

All of these points, I know, have been discussed and stated time and time again by thinking Armenians. Why am I repeating them? Well, I was looking at this picture of Kharpert, and as I said, something clicked.

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Even if I was to explain to my Greek friend what this valley between three mountains was, where it was located, how many thousands of years it had been populated by Armenians, and why it was so important to me as the birthplace of my mother’s paternal grandparents — it wouldn’t mean much to him, even considering that he is Greek and something of a fellow countryman. Think about it — if he explained to me about a special valley, formerly Greek, which — let us leave the Turks out of this for a moment — had perhaps been overrun by Bulgarians, or Albanians, and was no longer a part of the Greek homeland, would it mean much to me, except to arouse my sympathy for suffering people? If he explained to me that this valley was the center of an entire school of literature (I was thinking of Tulgadintsi, who sat in the center of the graduating photo), that it was the homeland of people who spoke and wrote a very special and poetic form of a literary dialect of Greek that no longer exists in present-day Greece, if he told me that they had a very special form of music that doesn’t exist in Greece anymore but is only played in parts of North America and that its greatest masters are old men who live in the old Greek settlement of Tarpon Springs, Fla., would any of that mean much to me? So why would I ever expect that it was going to mean anything to him to hear about Kharpert, how it was the center of the provincial school of Western Armenian literature; how it was the most educated and Westernized place in the Armenian provinces, including both the Orthodox and Protestant Armenian community; how the people spoke a charming rural dialect which nevertheless was quite close to literary Western Armenian; how Western Armenian itself was now an endangered language; how the Western Armenian folk music which Kharpert was famous for, and which survives predominantly in the US is also in danger of dying out; how Kharpert was famed for its “kufta” meatballs which are a specialty dish of Armenians in the diaspora….

We Armenians who follow community affairs and take an interest in our history assume that it has some kind of intrinsic value, that there is importance is knowing where we come from. We proudly rattle off names of villages or towns in Western Armenia – and often we do this whether we are Diasporan or Hayastantsi.

But do we realize that what we are doing is, in eyes of the world, quite bizarre? Do we realize that we are walking anachronisms? Does it occur to us that with a free and independent Republic of Armenia, which has developed its own modern culture and lifestyle for the past 200 years quite independently of us, that very few people aside from Diasporan Armenians care about what happens to Western Armenian language, music, cuisine, and culture? Does it occur to us that we are walking remnants? That if we stop speaking Western Armenian, the language will die. That if we stop dancing the Tamzara, the dance will die. That if we stop cooking Kharpert Kufta the cuisine will die — or be left to the Turks to claim? Do we realize that we ARE Western Armenia? That every Kharpertsi in New England IS Kharpert? That every Sepastatsi in Detroit, New York, or Chicago IS Sepastia? That every Dikranagerdtsi in New Jersey IS Dikranagerd, individually and collectively?

But more importantly, do we look at ourselves as others would see us, if they knew the whole picture? Why don’t we all just give up and speak Eastern Armenian? Why don’t we either move to Armenia, or give up the fight? Why don’t we forget about that music with the oud and clarinet? Why do we cling to this valley surrounded by three mountains, a valley we are never going back to?

My great-grandfather Nushan Hovsepian was born in that valley. His brother Krikor was a student of Tulgadintsi. His son, my grandfather Peter, loved Armenian music to his dying day, asking me to play my oud for him when I saw him just before he died. My mother, Peter’s daughter Patricia, raised me to be loyal to God first and my community, the Armenian community, second. Just like a good Armenian. These people were not and are not crazy. They were not rabid nationalists. This was just their reality. They easily connected who and what they were with Armenia as they knew it, as my mother knew it when she visited in 1976. But they weren’t from modern Armenia. They were cut from the cloth of Kharpert. Everything they did was dictated by where their ancestors came from. Being Armenian was something taught by their grandparents, not learned in Sunday School, or in a youth group, or through a book, or through a trip to Armenia. 100 years later, they were still a walking anachronism — a group of people who were really from Kharpert (circa 1905), but who just happened to be living in 21st century Metro Detroit.

And the same can be said for my dad’s family. And the families of so many of my friends. When I moved to Chicago, a woman at my new church, who knew my mother and father, saw me helping out in the kitchen and said to me “you could never not be who you are, could you?” No, I couldn’t. And neither could they. And if that means we are going to walk around for the rest of our lives eating a cuisine, playing a style of music, and attempting to speak a language that is tied to a group of remote valleys in a distant part of the world, because of a historical connection that most Americans would laugh at us for trying to maintain – I say, let them laugh. We may seem funny to some, but we can never not be who we are.


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